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A Good Time Was Had By All

Following the path to creating an entertaining classical music concert.

by Drew McManus
March 29, 2004

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One of my many hats in the business of classical music is serving as the executive director and artistic manager for the Baltimore Virtuosi.  In the capacity of those positions, it’s my responsibility to book guest artists and negotiate their contracts.  A few years ago I needed to hire a guest artist for one of the upcoming concerts, a benefit concert for gynecologic cancer research.  This concert would invariably draw a large number of individuals that don’t otherwise attend classical music concerts. 
Chris NormanSince the marketing emphasis for the Virtuosi is the ensemble itself along with guest artists (as opposed to a conductor), I wanted to hire someone with an equal amount of “entertainment value” as “artistic prowess”.  In order to find just the right individual, I had a few strategic planning sessions with members of the orchestra and colleagues (which is nothing more than a vocabulary ridden way to say we got together and had some wine and snacks) that produced a list of potential candidates - as well as a full stomach and a minor hangover.  After that I went about contacting the guest artists and their managers.  One of the names on the short list was Chris Norman, natural flutist extraordinaire.  Once Chris’ press kit arrived it was far and away better than every other artist’s kit I received.  Here’s what showed up:
  • A seven page spiral bound 8.5” x 11” promotional booklet containing reams of engaging press releases, critical reviews, a biography that was more than just factual timeline, a discography, and much of Chris’ philosophy on music and flute playing.
  • A CD with both studio and live recordings of Chris’ most requested and new repertoire
  • A VHS video containing a collection of live performances, studio work, teaching workshops, and Chris interacting with patrons at concerts.  The tape was of excellent production quality, complete with professional voice over.
But it wasn’t the quality of the material itself that let me know Chris was the right choice, it was because the material communicated that Chris likes to be more than just a static “walk out, play – now where’s the check” kind of artist.  And that’s the attitude that fit right in with the ensemble’s mission statement*: bringing people in to classical music and involving them – enabling them become insiders.  Chris’ press kit was probably expensive to produce, but in the end his cost were made up with the fact that he was our first choice without anyone even coming in a close second. 
I give our guest artists the entire second half of the concert, and encourage them to do what they do best with as little input from me as possible, so long as they present an engaging program.  I also like to collaborate with guest artists as opposed to simply having the orchestra functioning as background music, and in this case we did some really wonderful work where we arranged one of Chris’ most popular pieces (one of his own compositions) for string orchestra.  It meant that we had to spend more rehearsal time than is normal working with guest artists to smooth out the bugs and get it working, but it was worth it.  It made everyone (guest artist, ensemble, and even me as the conductor), more involved with the final artistic product – the orchestra didn’t see it as simply “another gig”.
During the actual concert, Chris performed some of his own solo unaccompanied works, an unaccompanied duet with the bass player (who is also a member of his personal trio), a duet with the concertmaster, and frequently spoke directly to the audience.  Our announcer for that concert, the ever enchanting Dyana Neal from WBJZ, Baltimore Maryland, even engaged in some really funny “off the script” banter with Chris that the audience just ate up. After the concert Chris, along with many players from the orchestra, dove right into meeting with audience members.  So there everyone was, with their Starbucks® coffee in hand talking about the performance, what it is to be a musician general, and simply communicating what makes classical music wonderful. (As an aside, I always contract Starbucks® to provide post concert refreshments – provided free to audience members.  Start brewing it at intermission so they can smell it throughout the second half.  Then make sure donation boxes are handy throughout the hall and/or lobby and trust me, audience members will want to stick around and you’ll make far more from donations than the cost of the coffee and servers – the interaction between musician and patron along with the caffeine will conspire to ensure it).
So how does a good press kit relate to a successful, inclusive, engaging, concert experience?  Simple; the press kit communicated to me, the manager responsible for booking talent, all that Chris had to offer above and beyond his artistic excellence.  In the end it was a win-win-win-win situation:
  1. Chris Norman won by increasing his exposure in a community where he wasn’t as well known (plus he sold a bunch of CD’s).
  2. The ensemble won because it provided them with more control and a greater sense of inclusion in the artistic process, not to mention the adoration and new found respect from audience members.
  3. The audience – and therefore the community - won because they were presented with a concert experience that included them as opposed to the stereotypical “sit, listen, and go home” occasion most people relate to.
  4. The art form that is classical music won because it didn’t have to be “dumbed down” in order to seem appealing to an audience that was largely inexperienced with attending orchestra concerts.   For the first time many people began to see that classical music does have relevance to their lives.

* In my opinion, classical music doesn’t need “mission statements”, it should be obvious.  Spending time figuring out what your “mission” is in classical music ensembles is like figuring out how the instructions on a box of toothpicks should be worded.

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Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA writes:
March 30, 2004
Drew McManus, and how Gary Karr got his Amati Double Bass

Drew McManus's inspiring account of good classical programming reminded me of similar times with the Falmouth Music Association (Cape Cod MA) where I was program chairman. We also had an after-concert cooldown with punch and cookies with the guest artists. Some of the most memorable moments were conversations with musicians.

Gary Karr, the virtuoso double bass soloist - who could make that big instrument sound like a viola - had us in rapt attention. First, he told us that the best music reviewers in his experience were not the big-city writers, but small town reviewers who really cared about music and reported things of importance to audiences, rather than peer journalists or music professionals.

But really spellbinding was his account of his Carnegie Hall debut. Before the concert a elderly woman with a strong Russian accent called to invite him to an after concert party: it was Mrs. Koussevitzky, the late, famous conductor of the Boston Symphony.

The debut was a fabulous success, and Karr duly made his way to the elegant apartment of Mrs. Serge Koussevitzky. At that event, crowded with famous names, Madame Koussevitzky presented him a gift: Serge Koussevitzky's Amati double bass! Koussevitzy had been a noted soloist on this instrument before becoming a conductor.

There is no thrill to music lovers greater than being invited to share in the excitement and passion of music making and the people and events involved in this endeavor.

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